Hi-tech teacher at their little fingertips

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Pix by M.D. Nissanka

White and green, they are toy-like and handy, slightly thicker than the school-slates of old. At the touch of a button, attractive lessons with colourful pictures or other educational activity in the form of games, either in Sinhala or Tamil, light up the laptop screen, accompanied by lilting music.

A cyber revolution in the making, not in the high-powered centres of learning in Colombo but in schools in the remotest corners of the country, among less-privileged children, all between the tender age of 5 and 10 years old.
Niel Sumudu Kumari

“This is a pilot project to introduce laptops as a tool of education to primary children in difficult areas,” explains the Director of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) of the Ministry of Education, Niel Gunadasa.

Known as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project, to be launched this month, all children from Grades 1 to 5 in nine remote schools, one each from a province, are to be provided laptops by the ministry, the Sunday Times understands. Three private institutions, Chart Foundation, Hatton National Bank and Tigo, have also joined in to provide laptops to four more schools.

These small schools having no more than 80-100 children include Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and plantation schools. The project implemented with World Bank funding amounting to Rs. 30 million and support from the OLPC Lanka Foundation is unique because the children will take the laptops home with them, along with a solar panel as they do not have electricity.

There are two prongs to ICT, points out Mr. Gunadasa, explaining that there is ‘ICT education’ and ‘ICT for education’. “Our aim is to use ICT for education for these children, so that they get rid of their techno phobia and use the laptop to reinforce what they have studied in school, enjoying the process by doing games etc.”

These children are bright but do not have the facilities like good libraries, other resources and even parental guidance to help them along. “So these laptops will be like their teacher and playmate at home, during the weekends and holidays as well,” he says.

“It is a wonderful entry into the IT race for these children, keeping up with modern developments,” says child rights activist Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, a member of the OLPC Lanka Foundation.

“The maximum learning is from birth to five years. Between Grades 1–5, this foundation can be strengthened to develop the child’s cognitive skills, after which the child will be able to imbibe new knowledge. Unfortunately, primary children in remote areas do not have facilities to build on that foundation because their parents are concentrating on eking out a living and may have themselves dropped out of school at an early age,” she explains.

How did it all begin? The idea mooted by Education Minister Susil Premajayantha last year, had been fervently followed by the ICT Branch, says Director Gunadasa.

Having heard of the special, low-cost laptops with the wi-mesh networking facility for primary children created by Prof. Nicholas Negroponte and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), already in use in South America and Africa, it was to them that the ministry went through the OLPC Lanka Foundation.

Now in a room on the fourth floor of the ministry at Isurupaya are 1,300 small boxes, each with a laptop awaiting delivery to schools such as Kalogahaela Kanishka Vidyalaya, Tharul Hasanath Vidyalaya, Waihena KV, Deliwala Tissa KV and Blackwood PII Vidyalaya. These innocuous-looking boxes are no indication of the hours of dedicated and tedious work put in by many an official including teachers.

The challenge began when the laptops arrived – the operating system was in English and there were only a few lessons in English and some games, Mr. Gunadasa says. “Although other countries had just handed over the laptops to primary schoolchildren, we were not ready to do that. We needed to localize them.”

The project will not end with the distribution of laptops, stresses Deputy Director of Education Kumari Senevirathne, but will be evaluated by experts from the World Bank. The performance of children in nine “control schools” who have not been issued with laptops will be compared with those who have, she says adding that depending on these results, the ministry will decide whether to replicate it in all primary schools.
The IT wizards behind the scenes

Long and weary were the hours for those who took up the challenge of making the OLPC project a reality. There were two battles to be won -- the operating systems of the laptops that were in English had to be localized to Sinhala and Tamil, checking word to word and the digital content based on the teachers’ guides relating to all the lessons of the vital subjects – Sinhala or Tamil Language, math and English Language for all five grades developed.

It is a total Sri Lankan effort, says Assistant Director of Education (ICT Branch), Sumudu Vasana Wijesuriya. Primary school in-service advisors were mobilized to draw up supplementary work and related activity for the lessons while 12 teachers from the provinces who had won IT competitions took up the task of content development.

This was where the University of Colombo School of Computing and the Free and Open Source Community (as the OLPC was based on this) gave their unstinting support, not only training the teachers but also helping overcome glitches.

Those who burnt the midnight oil, developing the digital educational content of 800 lessons are teachers Vajirani Samarakoon, T. Nimalan, S.D. Thennakoon, W.M.T.B. Wanninayake, M.G.N. Manohara, G.A.N.W. Abeywardane, Ajith Kumara Wasantha, A.M. Upali Jinatissa, R.W.B.P. Ranatunga, Namalie Liyanage, R.M.S.P. Rajapaksha and Sumedha Munasinghe, she says.

Upali and Namalie had gone beyond the call of duty, with Upali being able to introduce sounds to the lessons, she adds.

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